I am so proud of everybody for the response to my most recent post. You’ve really shown the positives that can come of people coming together on the Internet. It brings a tear to the eye! I’m excited about my Furrowed Middlebrow books arriving, and will certainly report back on what I think of the books.
But for today – let’s look at some books about reading. This has certainly my go-to comfort-genre of choice over the past year or so. I picked up quite a few in my trips to America, and I am endlessly entertained, informed, and charmed by them – thankfully there are plenty more to read on my shelves. As I often turn to them when I want episodic distraction, I don’t always get around to making proper reviews of them – so I’ve grouped three together for mini-reviews. Sound ok?
Why I Read (2014) by Wendy Lesser
The subtitle to this one is ‘the serious pleasure of books’, and Lesser is certainly not taking the role of the average reader. She wears her education heavily (if that is the opposite of ‘lightly’ in this instance), and it becomes rather farcical how often she mentions Henry James, BUT it’s still an enjoyable and extremely thought-provoking look at the different elements of reading. She divides her chapters in ‘Character and Plot’, ‘The Space Between’, ‘Novelty’, ‘Authority’, ‘Grandeur and Intimacy’, and ‘Elsewhere’ – make of those what you will – and her thoughts and arguments cover great swathes of territory and many writers and nationalities.
I would certainly need to re-read to familiarise myself afresh with her lines of argument, and this is closer to a scholarly book than most of the books-about-reading I enjoy, but is still certainly accessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, it would be infuriating in a scholarly context, because there are no footnotes or referencing
Why does she read? The whole book is, of course, building that answer – but I also liked (if did not agree with) the summing-up of sots of ‘I read […] for meaning, for sound, for voice – but also for something I might call attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself’. I’d certainly recommend Why I Read – and it is also beautifully designed and printed – but somebody should have a word in her ear about how often one can get away with throwing in Henry James. I shall always wryly smile in recollection of ‘Very little in the world can compare with the experience of reading, or even rereading, The Golden Bowl, but we cannot always be reading The Golden Bowl‘. Well quite.
The Art of the Novel (2015) edited by Nicholas Royle
I asked for this collection of essays for my birthday last year – thanks Rhiannon! – because my friend (can I say that on the strength of meeting once?) Jenn Ashworth has an essay in it. You may recall I raved about Fell earlier in the year; in this collection she writes on ‘Life Writing / Writing Life’. Everybody in the collection discusses different angles on how to write, from genre (Leone Ross on magical realism; Livi Michael on historical fiction) to broader concerns like place, details, plot twists, etc. Besides Ashworth, I’d only heard of a handful of the authors (Alison Moore, Stella Duffy, and – believe it or not – two Nicholas Royles, whom I’d got confused on a previous occasion) but I am hardly the benchmark for knowing about modern literature. Only one contributor, one of the Nicholas Royles in fact, takes a weird tangent – into the concept of the death of the author – which has little to do with practical advice.
This was one of the books I read in Edinburgh, and it was entertaining – I was reading it more out of interest than seeking advice – but I did particularly like how each essayist ended their section with a list of books they admired or recommended. It was interesting how often Muriel Spark’s excellent book The Driver’s Seat came up.
The Whole Five Feet (2009) by Christopher R. Beha
The most personal of the three books featured today, and the most unusual in concept (is there a word for ‘gimmicky’ that isn’t negative?) – and by far the longest subtitle. *Clears throat* ‘What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else’.
The great plants in question are the Harvard Classics – Beha decides that he will try to read all of the Harvard Classics in a year. They supposedly take up five feet on a shelf, hence the title. For those not au fait with the series (as I was not), it was created in 1909 to be the best literature, fiction and non-fiction, made available to the everyman, in 51 chunky volumes. It is quite an unusual collection of works; the blurb describes it as ‘from Plato to Dante, Shakespeare to Thoreau’, but it also includes some more idiosyncratic choices – like Two Years Before the Mast, an account of sailing by Richard Henry Dana, Jnr.
What makes this book so engrossing is how well Beha combines the reading experience with personal accounts of his own life – losses and illness chiefly – that accompany the year, writing with a empathetic dexterity that makes the reader warm to him and care deeply. The actual responses to the books become less important as The Whole Five Feet continues, and it ultimately seems more of an endurance test than an engagement with literature. In some ways, this is more memoir than a book-about-reading, but it is none the worse for that.